Picozu – Free Online Image Editor

Picozu is definitely an impressive looking editor with Photoshop compatibility, and seems to have tablet support. There’s also a Firefox addon for screen captures along with a bunch of impressive features for an online editor. You can also sign up for an account on their site to keep track of your work across devices.

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via Digital Inspiration

Text to movie with Xtranormal & State

I created the above video as an introduction to HarIT, the Green IT event of Avenues 2009, the annual B-school fest of SJMSOM, my B-school. I used the text to movie service – Xtranormal. It is a handy and innovative service that allows you to make movies by literally placing words in the mouths of characters. It has been around for a few months now and it recently launched a desktop software for making movies called State.

So, there are now two ways to make movies – one using the online service and two using the State software. The service is available in a basic and premium version. The basic version limits the number of actors, scenes & voices available. There are numerous worlds available online (see pic below) while the desktop software limits the worlds available but provides more actors, scenes & voices. The software is in beta and so is likely to change to be consistent with the online version.

Xtranormal worlds

The desktop software, State, requires you to have an account on Xtranormal and login before you can start using it. This is likely to regulate features available to free and premium members. It can be a bit of a problem to use the software if you are behind an authenticated proxy like me, as it does not load without logging in. It seems to use the proxy settings from Internet Explorer, but doesn’t prompt you for authentication. Due to this, it almost became a non-starter. However, I managed to find a workaround using a HTTP tunnel client that removes the need for authentication and sets up a local proxy address instead.

State Login

Since the software is in beta there are frequent updates, and upon logging in, you may find yourself facing an update window. When I was using the software the day before, it was prompting me for updates, but failed to download any of the files and later on, the prompts went away.

State Update

However, the software is quite easy to use (though pretty unstable – crashed many many times) and I managed to put together the video you saw on top in half a day. Not bad for a first time user eh? 🙂 It seems to support movie exports in 3 formats as of now (I used only the AVI option). It has support for background scores, character expressions, postures, movements, looking and lots more. There also seem to be a few placeholder elements in the interface indicating that there’ll be support for inserting videos and pictures along with the option of recording audio (or are those premium features?). In absence of these features as of now, I just exported an AVI file and then did some editing in Windows Live Movie Maker (another easy to use & handy product) to create the final piece.

Here’s a screenshot from the software:

State screenshot

One of the things that struck me while making the video was the level to which text to speech has progressed. Earlier, I remember the text to speech convertors spelling out words in case it did not have it built in. In State however, the words were handled phonetically. There were some limitations of course with the default spellings for some of the Indian words, but I solved them easily by going in for phonetic spellings. For example, HarIT was being pronounced as Har-I-T rather than Har-eet, and the latter is the spelling we used in the script to get the desired result. Similarly we also had to split facebook to “face book” to get the right pronunciation.

Overall, the service holds a lot of promise and if you look into the future, it’s only a matter of a few years before we’re able to create high quality animated movies from our personal machines. Just imagine directing well known characters yourself. That said, the online version seems to be having load issues as the number of users seems to have expanded quite a bit. The desktop version does addresses the availability problems of the online version, but the feature sets are not same across the two.

You can also check out the Xtranormal youtube channel to catch their latest movies.

OpenOffice Writer, citation & table quirks

I’m two weeks (out of eight) into my internship with Sun Microsystems in Delhi, and have been using OpenOffice almost exclusively to create & edit documents during this period. Initially I had installed version 3.0 & last week upgraded to the latest 3.1 version. Feature wise, OpenOffice seems to be quite a useful alternative to MS Office, though it is not entirely compatible with the Office 2007 formats, particularly pptx.

There have  been a couple of features that I found lacking in the OpenOffice writer. The first was the lack of a proper citation/reference management tool like in Word 2007. The database based feature seemed a bit too complicated. As I was looking around on the OpenOffice wiki, I found a nifty Firefox based utility called Zotero. It allows the collection of reference sources on Firefox & these can later be inserted as references in Writer. It supports a number of citation formats & also allows one to insert a bibliography section that is synced with the main Firefox reference database. There is also a plugin for MS Word in addition to some other word processors. There seems to be one limitation with the reference tool though – it does not support inserting references in tables. Still, it is quite a useful tool to have.

And, talking of tables in OpenOffice Writer, there is a feature turned on by default that seems to be more irritating than handy. This is the auto number formatting in table cells along the lines of a spreadsheet. I found this to be quite a problem when typing in numbers with decimal points (entering “3.0” would get converted to “3”) or date like numbers/phrases that got converted to a different format. This feature while quite handy in a spreadsheet caused me quite a lot of problems initially before I turned it off. Turning it off is quite simple. Just go to Tools->Options->OpenOffice.org Writer->Table and uncheck the “Number recognition” feature (I could have probably just unchecked the “Number format recognition”). I did the same under the OpenOffice.org Writer/Web section too, to be on the safer side.

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College goer’s freeware toolkit

I’ve been suggesting quite a few software to my classmates over the last few months. So I thought of collating all the recommendations into one post. Here’s the list of different freeware that should be useful for different purposes.

Image editing

GIMP – This is the open source alternative to Photoshop, and the most popular image editor on Linux. It has a variety of features and there are quite a lot of tutorials available on the net for it. It recently underwent an interface overhaul.

Paint.NET – A Windows only image editor that should be powerful enough for most needs while being fairly simple to use.

Picasa – Not a full fledged image editor, but good enough for touching up photos. It serves quite well as a photo organizer, and is the official tool for uploading to Google’s Picasa web album.

Windows Live Gallery – Very similar to Picasa, with slight differences in the interface. It fills the gap for a uploader combined with a photo gallery for Flickr.

Video editing

Virtualdub – A very basic video editor (mainly for AVI files), useful for trimming and clean up.

Windows Live Movie Maker – The Live version of the popular Windows Movie Maker that supports publishing to the MSN online service.

Videospin – A very good alternative to the Windows Movie Maker. It has a host of features, and videos can be created in a variety of formats. I got to know of it from its coverage on the Digital Inspiration blog.

Audio editing

Audacity – One of the best audio editors out there, and a very handy alternative to the paid Sound Forge. Very useful for performing different tasks and processing on audio clips.

Screencast

Camstudio – A decent alternative to the paid Camtasia Studio. It supports the creation of screencast videos, along with the ability to record audio.

Wink – Another screen capture software that records images, but can also be used for making screencasts.

Document creation

OpenOffice – An open source alternative to Microsoft Office – not 100% compatible, but it has some additional features of its own along with support for other formats. The memory usage is on the higher side.

Lotus Symphony – Another alternative to MS Office by IBM. Similar to OpenOffice, but with fewer applications in the suite.

PDF creator – A handy utility to create PDFs from different sources (installs as a PDF printer).

Notepad++ – A must have replacement for notepad. Has a tabbed interface, supports syntax highlighting (useful for editing HTML, XML etc), and recording of macros.

Utilities

7-Zip – Supports most of the commonly used compression formats like zip, rar, cab etc along with its own 7z format which boasts of one of the best compression ratios. A very good alternative to paid software like Winzip and WinRAR. It can also be used to split files which comes in handy when sending large email attachments in batches.

CCleaner – One of the most popular system cleanup utilities. It clears temporary files, browser cache, history etc.

VirtualBox – Useful for creating virtual machines, like say for Linux which can then in turn be used for different purposes. Much more convenient than trying to set up dual boot configurations, especially on laptops.

Fun stuff

ComicRack – Very useful for keeping ones comic/ebook library organized. It supports various formats like pdf, cbr etc. Kind of like a media library for books.

Internet

Pidgin – A popular messaging client that supports most of the major IM networks like MSN, Yahoo!, AIM and GTalk. Definitely more convenient than having a ton of IMs loaded at the same time, granted that none of the advanced features of the networks are being used.

Flock – The social network incarnation of Firefox. It contains built-in tools for posting to blogs, uploading to photo sharing sites like Flickr, checking social networking sites among many other features.

Feed Demon – A powerful feed reader that is integrated with the Newsgator service (similar to Google Reader) to keep feeds in sync across machines.

RSS Bandit – Another feed reader that’s currently under development, but supports integration with Google Reader.

Portable Apps

PortableApps comprises of an entire suite of applications that can be run directly from a removable storage device like USB drives and external hard disks. It contains many of the software mentioned here. Some of them are included by default in the download, while others can be added using the respective installers.

The applications range from browsers and email clients to media players and editors, office applications to virus scanners among many more. Every portable device should include this.

Playing around with CHDK and HDR imaging

I had stumbled upon the CHDK firmware for Canon cameras through a Wired article some time back, and finally got around to trying it out on my PowerShot A630 today. I also discovered that it is possible to create HDR images by shooting images at different exposures and subsequent manipulation through appropriate software (tutorials: Photoshop / CS2, GIMP / GIMP using a script, Paint.NET or Photomatix).

So, the first thing I did was to download the CHDK build for my camera (I used the AllBest oneusage instructions). Then, I followed the instructions and copied the files to a spare SD card I had, and put it into the camera. I started the camera in play mode and used the menu to activate the CHDK firmware (this is only temporary, and needs to be activated every time the camera is switched on). Once activated, I could switch between the two versions using the Print button. There are a ton of options in the CHDK menu including support for scripts (written in uBasic), enabling additional shutter speeds and indicators among many others.

With the firmware nicely set, I went ahead and started shooting for making HDR images. Initially I tried an HDR bracketing script available to shoot some of the photos. The script seemed to have some problems focusing at times, but I managed to get some shots. I also discovered the ability to do exposure bracketing in the continuous shooting mode, which I also used to shoot a few photos.

I then used the trial version of Photomatix to create the HDR images as I was feeling too lazy to go through all the steps to create HDR images in GIMP (there is a contrast blending script which takes of this though) or Paint.NET. The only drawback of using the trial version is that it inserts a watermark into the end result. This is ok since I was experimenting with HDR imaging, and I’ll switch to GIMP or Paint.NET for serious photos. One of the things I noticed in the resulting HDR images is that they can tend to look a bit cartoonish or unnatural.  Anyway, here are a couple of results.

I have created a collection on flickr for the HDR images (both sources and results are included). I’ll be adding to the collection as and when I get the opportunity. There are quite a few HDR groups on flickr too, and they do have some good looking photos. For something more interesting, have a look at this (not by me).

Update: Just discovered an open source HDR imaging software – Qtpfsgui. The output (sample on this post) appears to be a bit more cartoony due to a different algorithm being used. (via)

A pseudo IDE for Google App Engine – Komodo Edit

I signed up last week for the Google App Engine, and tried out the tutorial for creating a guest book. It is a pretty simple tutorial, but one of the things I noticed about the App Engine is that there is no add-on for any IDE/editor at the moment, unlike the Android SDK which has its own eclipse plug-in or even the Web Toolkit which has a utility to generate an eclipse project.

Initially, I tried using Notepad++ which I have installed as my basic text editor, but I didn’t get much support beyond basic syntax highlighting. It does have a built in run command, but is not very configurable. This is when I decided to give Komodo Edit a try (it is open source). It is a lightweight version of the Komodo IDE, but has support for a variety of languages along with a useful set of tools. Incidentally, it is based off the Mozilla code base, and has support for add-ons just like Firefox, Thunderbird and Flock.

You can organise files into projects, which comes in handy for the Google App Engine applications, which is typically composed of a set of files based in a folder. The editor also has some basic syntax checking in addition to syntax highlighting. However, the code intelligence/auto-complete is limited to the base Python installation, and so will not be able to help with the Google App Engine.

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In addition to this, the editor also has a customisable run command, which can be used to launch the development server. Shown below is my customised run command which can be used on the main .py file of the application (E.g. helloworld.py form the tutorial), and launches the development server in a new console (set using the “Run in” option). The “Start in” parameter is also important as the server needs to be launched from the parent folder of the folder in which the application is stored, i.e., if the application files are stored in “D:\Dev Stuff\gAppEng\helloworld”, the server needs to be launched from “D:\Dev Stuff\gAppEng”. Here, I have used the “ask” option with a default value for the “start in” location, so that I am prompted for the path at the time of server launch.

Komodo IDE Run config

There are quite a few other tools available in the editor, like file compare, spell checker, templates etc, which I haven’t tried out yet. Now, if I could only think of my own project for the App Engine. Suggestions anyone?

Update: Just noticed that another person has posted instructions for using Komodo Edit as an IDE for Google App Engine (on Linux it seems), including steps for setting up the uploader among others. (via)